Baltimore police interim commissioner: Judges must stop letting violent criminals go

Twenty-year-old Raytawn Benjamin has been at the center of a considerable amount of violence this year in Baltimore. He is a person of interest in several gang-related shootings and homicides, he has been shot twice himself, and his mother and sister were both tragically murdered — perhaps by one or more of Mr. Benjamin’s rivals who had come looking for him.

Then, in July of this year, Mr. Benjamin was charged with a handgun violation after he was seen throwing a gun into the backyard of a vacant home while running away from Baltimore police officers. The weapon would turn out to be an illegal, loaded .380 semi-automatic handgun. The evidence included clear video from one of our helicopters, body-worn camera footage from arresting officers, Mr. Benjamin’s DNA on the gun, and information gleaned from Mr. Benjamin’s cell phone. We also know that, while he was in jail, Mr. Benjamin asked an associate to get rid of another gun that was used in the commission of numerous violent crimes. This was an extremely well-assembled and solid case.

After Mr. Benjamin pleaded guilty, the State’s Attorney’s Office recommended to Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Geller that Mr. Benjamin be sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison, while Mr. Benjamin asked for a maximum of five years. But on Dec. 4, to everyone’s surprise, Judge Geller gave Mr. Benjamin “Probation Before Judgement,” meaning if he successfully completes three years of probation, he will have no conviction for this crime. As a result, Mr. Benjamin is now back on the street. In addition, Judge Geller refused to add Mr. Benjamin to the Gun Offender Registry, despite the prosecutor’s request to do so.

This case is a good illustration of a problem that has plagued Baltimore for years: repeat violent offenders who serve little, if any, time in prison despite the best efforts of police and prosecutors. This year, 50 percent of Baltimore’s murder victims and 47 percent of murder suspects have previously been arrested for violent crimes. In addition, murder victims in Baltimore this year have been arrested an average of 11 times in their lives, while murder suspects have been arrested an average of 7 times. A murder victim from earlier this month had been arrested 24 times.

As we have known for some time, a small number of people in Baltimore are responsible for a disproportionately large share of the violent crime. In many cases, my officers know exactly who those people are and arrest them. After they are convicted, we rely on judges to do their part to keep those violent criminals where they belong — in prison. But too often, as in the case of Raytawn Benjamin, it just isn’t happening.

That is why this issue has to be included in any serious discussion about reducing violent crime in our city. In the summer of 2017, the Baltimore City Council rejected a proposal that called for a mandatory one-year sentence for first-time offenders convicted of illegally carrying a handgun. That would have been a good place to start because defendants in too many gun cases are simply not receiving the sentences they deserve. The message has become increasingly and dangerously clear: If you do the crime, you might not do much time in Baltimore.

I say all this not to assign blame but instead to point out an injustice that is contributing to the city’s high levels of violence. The net effect of releasing Raytawn Benjamin will likely be more violence, in which case all of us in Baltimore will suffer.

I have the utmost respect for the judges in our city, and I am in no way questioning Judge Geller’s integrity. But there is too much at stake not to point out major problems when they exist, and having to arrest the same violent criminals over and over and over again is obviously a major problem.

For the sake of every law-abiding Baltimore resident, this must change. When it does, when serious crimes consistently result in serious consequences, I believe we will be well on our way toward making Baltimore the city we all know it can be.

Gary Tuggle (commissioner@baltimorepolice.org) is interim commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.

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